Remembrance

1914
Belgian geographical vulnerability, so often shown throughout her history, was illustrated twice in less than forty years. The first occasion was on Augsut 4th, 1914. Once the German offer of independence after the war, in return for a free passage to the Channel, has been refused by King Albert I and his gouverment, neutral Belgium was treated as an enemy, and invaded. After the speech of the King in the Parliament the German troops crossed the border by following the strategy of Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the Imperial German General Staff and  started with attacking the forts around Liège.

Cities as Ardenne, Aarschot, Leuven and Dendermonde were destroyed by the Germand troops. Citizens were arrested and executed in public. Houses were reduced to ashes. After the war these cities were called Martyr cities.

On August 20th German troops entered Brussels, a counterattack from Antwerp failed and on October 9th the town fell. The Belgian army withdrew with British, Canadian and Australian support to the Yzer river where under the command of the Belgian King Albert I it dug in and remained entrenched until the end of the war.

The whole country with the exception of the tiny Yzer are disappeared under the pall of enemy occupation. The Belgian government was in exile near Le Havre. Industry was at a standstill and most people were hungry. To avoid complete starvation American Relief was organised.

In order to divide and weaken Belgium, the German occupier developed its Flamenpolik. A strategy to instrumentalise the Flemish movement in order to Ensure German control over Belgium. The Flemish movement was splitted in an anti- Belgian wing and a Belgian-loyal wing. A small group of Flemish activists saw the Germans as the answer to all their problems, as the saviours of Flanders. The German rulers supported the Dutch language in the University of Ghent set up by the German Governor von Bissing. The new name of the University was The von Bissing University.

 

1914 Christmas Truce

 

On Christmas Eve 1914, the front line looks surreal. The German have positioned the Christmas trees that were sent to them – a symbol that was hardly familiar in the rest of Europe, but not in Flanders- on the trenches. Light are flickering everywhere. In spite of the moon in a clear sky, the snipers have stopped for a while. In several places, the sounds of Christmas carols emerge. The Germans mostly start with ‘ Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht’, O Tannenbaum’ and ‘O du frohliche’. The singing is answered on the Allied side- with clapping or their own songs. ost of the soldiers noted in their diaries that the Germans were better in singing.

The English and the Germans – who, the evening before, were singing Christmas carols together and swapping tobaccoo in an ungly war landscape with illuminated  Christmas trees- start to play a game of football. Here, to, the goalposts are fashioned from the soldiers’ helmets.

1915 First Gas attack

On 22 April 1915 the Germans used gas for the very first time as a weapon in modern warfare, an this in contravention of the provisions of The Hague Convention. The production of poison gas was a branch of the science of chemistry, a discipline is which Germany was a world leader. However, the other warring nations soon made up the lost ground and before both sides were wagging full –scale chemical welfare. The Germans were also more advanced in terms of the design and production of gasmasks. These masks underwent a rapid evolution during the course of the war years. The first one were unsophisticated mask, little more than a wad of cotton, but they were still better than the original issue, which was simply a wet cloth, often drenched in urine and held across the mouth. It took quite some time to put on these clumsy masks – a major drawback in a situation where seconds could mean the difference between life and death.

 

1917

A small group of activists saw the Germans as the answer to all their problems. They supported the Dutch language in the University of Ghent set up by the German Governor von Bissing, and set up a Flemish Council in 1917 intended to govern Flanders after the division of the country into two halves.
A pocket of strong Flemish feeling grew up in the Belgian Army on the river Yzer. By far the greater number of soldiers were Flemings and many felt themselves misunderstood and badly treated by their French speaking officers. The third battle of Ieper was one of the most bloody battles on the Flemish hills round Ieper (Ieper Salient).

1918

By september 1918, however, the end was in sight and after yet more bloody battles for the Flemish hills, King Albert entered Ghent on the 13th, Antwerp on the 19th, and Brussels on the 22nd of November. The liberation had cost 3500 Belgian dead and about 30000 wounded. A witch hunt after 1918 tried to brand everyone who had supported a Dutch university as a pro -German collaborator, and unscrupulous politicians were careful not to distinguish between the two. So-called and real collaborators were pursued, and many old scores thus paid off. Such exaggerations could only end in a wave of disgust, and many in Flanders came to feel that the guilt was not being fairly apportioned. The government did nothing. The whole question of an amnesty was so hot that they dared not touch it.

1919

On 16th November 1919 the first universal single elections were held in Belgium. No longer an universal census suffrage depending on the level of education and the amount of annual taxes of men older than 25. Voters could receive between 1 to 3 votes. Now 1 vote and the age was decreased to 21.

1940.

Leopold III had talks with his ministers and refused to escape with them to London. His refusal to leave Belgium in 1940, his visits to Germany and interview with Hitler, his remarriage while many of his subjects were divided from their families, his friendship with one noted collaborator Degrelle, and above all his failure to be obviously on the allied side, made his position after the war extremely delicate.

1942

Violent round – ups of Jews began on 15 August 1942. The mayor of Antwerp – unlike his Brussels counterparts – placed his police at the Nazis’ service and made sure that the anti –Jewish policies were implemented. Individual officers responded in very different way, but cooperation was the norm. Jews were devastated, extreme panic leading some to commit suicide or to leave children as foundlings. It gradually dawned that the only way was to go into hiding. This marked the beginning of widespread individual Jewish resistance.

 

The 18th century Austrian Barraks was used by the Belgian army in the 1930’s. It was called Dossin Kazerne, named after an Belgian officer in World War I . The German occupier turned the building into a transit camp for 25.000 Jews and Roma at the beginning of June 1942.Systematic armed resistance began in July 1941, when the Communists went into hiding en masse after Germany ordered their arrest following its invasion of the Soviet Union. The Belgian Partisans armés, many of whose members were Jewish, operated under the Front de l’Indépendance’ umbrella, committing acts of sabotage and assassinating collaborators among other things. Four members of the corps broke into the Brussels Headquarters of the Association of Jews in Belgium on 25 July 1942, burning a copy of the central Register of Jews. The original was, however, already in the hands of the Sipo –SD.
Jews called up for ‘labor in the East’ waited to be registrated by the camp authorities. Detainees had to wear signs around their necks with a transport number. They had to hand over all their possessions. Flemish SS volunteers acted as guards.

 

From July 1942 to September 1944, the Dossin Barraks was used as an assembly camp for Jews and Romas from Belgium and northern France. Some 18,000 people were deported on the first 17 transports to Auschwitz- Birkenau up to late October 1942. It then took longer and longer to fill the convoys, which meant victims could spend months at the camp. They were allowed to receive parcels. Transport was in sealed third- class railway wagons until April 1943, and then in cattle trucks. People sometimes tried to escape. There were a total of 583 escapees, of whom 32 were shot in the attempt and 231 recaptured in all, over 25250 Jews and 352 Roma arrived at Auschwitz- Birkenau.
Transport XX departed from the Barracks in Mechelen on 19 April 1943. 238 Jews managed to escape en route. The guards on the train shot 26 of them dead. After the train had gone, bodies were found all along the tracks.

1944

On June 6th, 1944, the day of Normady landing, the Belgian king Leopold III and his family were deported to Germany. The next seven years were a bitter period of instability and the threat of violence.
Between September 1944 and July 1951 there were 10 governments, 3 general elections and one referendum. Two big issues divided the country: the punishment of collaborators and the position of Leopold III.

1946

After 1944, when Belgium was in turmoil, the hightly organised, Communist Party was able to make the most of the hunt for collaborators. They managed to forget the Russo- German alliance of 1939-1941 and give the impression that the Right contained nothing but collaborators and the Left nothing but patriots. In 1921 the Belgian Communist Party was founded. Its greatest successes followed the second world war when, in 1946, it obtained 46 Parliamentary seats. Many feared a Communist take-over. Until 1947 they retained several ministerial portfolios – there were 4 Communist ministers in the Socialist government of 1946, but the Cold War froze them out.

In Diksmuide the symbol of the Flemish Movement was totally destroyed by an attack on March 16, 1946. The Flemish press organised a Comittee to restore the Yser Cross. Prof. Frans Fransen became the new President and revitalised the Yser pelgrimage to commemorate the Flemish soldiers killed in World War I.

 

1950

The return of the King from exile was the result  of a referendum called the royal question. This showed that the country as a whole favoured the king’s return by a majority of 57,68%. In Flanders 71 % wanted him back. In Wallonia only 42 %.

When the King came back from his exile, Socialists and Communists immediately organised violent demonstrations against him, especially in Wallonia. Near Liège 3 demonstrators were shot by the police. To avoid more violence Leopold was replaced on August 11th 1950 by his son Baudouin, who,  on July 17th 195, took the oath as king. The ceremony was interruped by Julien Lahaut, the Chairman of the Communist Party, shouting ‘Long live the Republic’  A week later he was shot dead at his frontdoor in Serai